By 2020, you’ll be living in a more sustainable community, even if you don’t know it. Market forces more powerful than eco-ethics or energy policies are driving the makeover of towns and cities into pockets of walkable neighborhoods with varied retail and residential uses in close proximity, transforming both urban and suburban landscapes. In short, suburban dormitory neighborhoods have become less desirable, and downtown neighborhoods are the new American dream.
To compete with resurgent inner cities, the suburbs are developing their own versions of an urban core where park-and-shop malls once stood. By 2020, this urban retrofit should be under construction throughout the U.S. By 2030, most of us will live in places that look a lot like Europe, with discernible local character and a defined center of commerce that serves as the nexus for community life.
Of course, outspoken detractors exist, and to an alarming degree the notion of walkable communities has become a political issue that pits rural conservatives against urban progressives. But by and large, the argument has been won through the economic success of walkable urban centers, which has motivated cash-strapped cities to support the creation of new lifestyle centers that recreate the urban experience.
The first towns to turn toward urban retrofit for tax revenue include neighborhoods in what Christopher Leinberger, 2012 Vision 2020 Sustainable Communities chair, would describe as the primary concentric ring of suburban development. Areas immediately adjacent to a competing metropolis are included in this range, such as Wheat Ridge, Colo. This city just outside of Denver, which has recently transformed a major traffic artery lined with vacant storefronts and narrow sidewalks into a revived Main Street that draws commuters to, rather than through, the heart of town.
The city began with a vision. “In the year 2030, people of all ages and abilities live, work, learn, shop, and play along 38th Avenue,” asserted the city’s planning document for the 38th Avenue Corridor Plan, which was adopted in October 2011. Using a low-cost approach, the city put the corridor on a “road diet” in the summer of 2012 by reducing the number of thru-traffic lanes from four to two. The diet created several benefits to the corridor, including a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly environment, reduced traffic speeds, increased safety, and sought-after economic benefits by attracting new businesses. The project has become the catalyst for a wider, revitalization strategy strongly focused on creating multiple, community-focused hubs–or mini downtowns—within what was once a sprawling Denver suburb.
Along the same lines, in October, USA Today profiled several small cities that are becoming more cosmopolitan through similar redevelopment efforts. The article’s flagship was Carmel, Ind., a suburb 20 miles north of Indianapolis. The town’s self-described European style redevelopment effort has paid off handsomely, as this year Money magazine ranked it as the best place to live, with low unemployment, excellent schools, arts and culture, nature trails, and a huge community recreation complex. Other urban redevelopment efforts highlighted in the front page feature included towns in Texas, Utah, and Colorado.
The potency of this national shift toward walkable, non-automobile-centric life is both dramatic and historic. Car and single-family home sales have plummeted among the 21-to-34 demographic, an age range that may influence trends for the next two decades. Automakers have had to adjust sales to accommodate fleets of car-sharing services, instead of new car dealerships, and single family home builders are becoming multifamily developers because this cohort of would-be-first-time-home buyers seems to prefer a small apartment in the high-rent district to a discounted mortgage in the suburbs, according to a 2012 Federal Reserve study.
Leinberger’s theory of demand side transformation is the most powerful force working to reduce our nation’s dependence on carbon-based energy. It is perhaps the only force potent enough to make a difference because it is based on human preferences and on what we want to do versus what we ought to do. The market, or demand side strategy, works despite political swings, and has the self-determining economic muscle that makes things happen. There’s no need to set milestones and struggle to achieve them when social trends take over, as proven dramatically in the state of Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funding for a high-speed-rail line, only for private investors to step up and build the line themselves. Why? Because the market demands it.